OBERWALD, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - After a gap of 60 years, steam trains are again chugging over the historic Furka Pass in the Swiss Alps thanks to an army of rail enthusiasts and a rescue mission into the jungles of Vietnam.
And with the reopening of the old line between Oberwald and the village of Realp on the other side of the 2,490-meter-high crossing, the region is looking for a return of the tourists for whom it was a big draw since the middle of the 19th century.
“We have waited nearly 30 years for this,” said railway buff Thomas Meier as a sparkling black engine with crammed-full olive-green carriages behind emitted a high-pitched whistle as it pulled out of the station of this Rhone valley town.
The last time a train, by then electricity-powered, left Oberwald to head up the steep climb into pine forests and the snow-capped peaks, scene of ski-and-spying escapades in the James Bond film “Goldfinger,” was in 1982.
That year the famed Glacier Express, which links the up-market mountain resort of Zermatt to the equally posh St. Moritz some 170 km (106 miles) across the heart of Switzerland, was diverted through a newly built tunnel.
The Furka line, which first started running under steam power through some of Switzerland’s most stunning Alpine scenery in 1914, was abandoned to the elements — or would have been had rail buffs from all over Europe not stepped in.
A team of enthusiasts, many of them retirees from the Swiss state-run train transport system, quickly set up The Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway Club and started gathering funds to refurbish the track and rolling stock.
Financial support, says Meier who is still an employee of the SBB/CFF national rail network, came pouring in, especially from nostalgic Swiss emigres in the United States.
But a major challenge was the disappearance of most of the locomotives that had once plied the route up through the town of Gletsch with its imposing Hotel Glacier du Rhone, but had been dispersed when electricity replaced steam on the Swiss railway network some 70 years ago.
Perusing the archives, the Furka Club found several of the old Swiss-built engines had been sold to then French-ruled Vietnam in the late 1940s, operating throughout decades of fighting there and finally being put out to grass — or to rust — in the mid-1970s.
A mission was despatched to scour the country for them, and in 1990 it returned with news that four dilapidated survivors had been found, secured and loaded onto a cargo boat for return to Switzerland.
Another — which from 1902 to 1941 had served to take visitors up to Zermatt and the Matterhorn from the town of Visp in the canton of Valais — was spotted embellishing a school yard in Chur, in the Grisons canton east of the Furka.
These were all repaired, as a labor of love by old railwaymen who had once served in their cabs and stoked the coal into their boilers. Two or three began limited service on what had become the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway in the 1990s.
But it was not until this August that the final link, from Gletsch down to Oberwald was opened to great fanfare and celebrations with local residents and train crews donning early 20th century costume to mark the occasion.
In Gletsch, ladies in crinoline strolled along the platform with their menfolk in historically-matching gear — just as local historians say Britain’s Queen Victoria and her manservant John Brown once promenaded through the town in the 1870s after taking a horse carriage up from the valley.
As one of the 42-ton engines — seen from afar winding down from the Furka through mountain pastures past the inevitable Swiss cows — entered Gletsch, an elderly lady enthusiast waved the national flag from a station building window.
“She will be doing that every time a train comes or goes,” said Meier proudly. On the trains, and along the tracks, all the personnel are working without pay — including some from Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
The Club, now owners of the railway, hope that tourists paying 200 Swiss francs ($198) for a First Class return for the 2 hours 20 minutes journey between Realp and Oberwald will make a major contribution to keeping the service going.
The Second Class return is 121 francs ($120).
The line will only operate in the spring and summer, closing down in October when winter snows start sweeping across the tracks up near the peaks. “Keeping it running every year will be a challenge,” said Meier, “but we are sure we can do it.”
Editing by Paul Casciato